Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Young Cy Young

Yesterday, Tim Lincecum of the Giants won the NL Cy Young Award. Lincecum is just a baby, only 24 years old. I thought it would be good to take a look at other Cy Young winners who were age 24 and younger, to try and get a sense for what's in store for Lincecum. It's a mixed bag, but things do look bright:

1964 - Dean Chance (age 24): Chance beat out Sandy Koufax, having an "off" season (only 19 wins). Chance had four more good seasons before ineffectiveness (and possibly injury due to overwork?) ended his career at 30. Final record: 128-115

1968 (AL) - Denny McLain (24): The poster child for talent wasted. McLain won 31 games in 1968 and 24 more in 1969 before he pissed away his career. He had some arm problems (not his fault), but got caught up in gambling and bookmaking scandals, was suspended, and never recovered his form. He ended up in jail for a while. I don't think Tim Lincecum has to worry about becoming another Denny McLain.

1969 (NL) - Tom Seaver (24): There's nothing about Seaver I can say that you probably don't already know. He's one of the 10 best pitchers of all time.

1971 (AL) - Vida Blue (21): Blue dominated the league in 1971, suffered an injury the next season, and continued to pitch well up until the age of 30. Then he got caught up in drugs and spent time in jail. He was on a Hall of Fame track until age 30. Sad.

1981 (NL) - Fernando Valenzuela (20): Fernandomania! The Dodgers overworked his arm and he was basically finished at age 26 (though he hung on as best he could for another decade). With some babying, he might have won 250 games. Instead, he won 173.

1985 (NL) - Dwight Gooden (20): Boy he was fun to watch that season. Most curveballs are nicknamed "Uncle Charlie." Gooden's was called "Lord Charles." And his fastball was a sight to behold. You know the story about Gooden: he didn't take care of his arm, and he got caught up in drugs. A near-deadly combination.

1985 (AL) - Bret Saberhagen (21): Overuse killed his arm. He pitched 1,329 innings before the age of 26. And that's pretty much all she wrote. But he did lead the Royals to their only World Series victory, so at least Kansas City got that out of him.

1986, 1987 (AL) - Roger Clemens (23, 24): No problems here. The greatest pitcher of his generation. Somehow he survived early arm trouble (surgery at age 22) and tons of innings of work and still managed to win over 350 games.

2002 (AL) - Barry Zito (24): A cautionary tale. He just lost his stuff. Not due to arm trouble or overwork or anything. It just seems to have disappeared.

Summing it all up, this is a very distinguished list of pitchers. Chance and Zito never quite matched their early promise, and Saberhagen and Gooden suffered from serious injuries. But most of the rest of the pitchers had excellent careers.

A lot depends on Lincecum's arm and whether it can withstand the heavy use. We may find out next year, because that's often when injuries manifest themselves. But the examples of Seaver, Clemens, and even Vida Blue show that early success doesn't have to lead to injury or ineffectiveness. Considering the Giants have little to no chance of winning anytime soon, they'll have even less incentive to push Lincecum too far. Let's hope they're smart about it.

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